43/366 – The Dehumanization of the Internet

wargamesI’ve blogged at length this year about some of the benefits of the ever-expanding internet and online community of users – the usual stuff, consisting of things like “it’s an expansive community of people you’d normally never meet”, “it’s convenient and super capable”, “it’s a limitless resource”, and the like.

I’ve also talked about some of the drawbacks – the double-edged sword of finding less than savory or dishonest people, the idea that there are difficulties with managing behavior, the fact that it’s hard to keep up with how fast it’s growing and how many people are using it.

All of those previously mentioned drawbacks, however, pale in comparison to the one concern that I have about being online, and that’s the fact that people tend to increasingly dehumanize the people that are on it.

What do I mean by dehumanizing? A classic example would be to take a situation in which I’m unhappy with service and I’m communicating my concerns to a customer service representative. If I’m doing it the traditional, offline way, sure I’m talking to them, perhaps upset with what is happening to make my service less than satisfactory, but because I can see them, read their reaction on their faces and most importantly be subject to direct and physical response, I may say less acerbic things. Most people who have some level of empathy would treat this situation the same way.

But online, if I’m talking over chat, or on an online forum, or over a medium in which I can’t see the other person or be physically near them, all bets are theoretically off. Sure, there are standards and practices and tolerance for how I can type to someone over the internet, but none of the consequence of that behavior can necessarily be immediately reflected back to me, especially in the fact that I can’t read how they are reacting. To me, they’re a disembodied set of words with possibly a strange avatar picture to represent them, and perhaps less of a person, meaning that if I’m angry enough, I might tend to type something I’d probably never actually say to someone if they were standing in front of me.

My theoretical example happens every day online and in so many myriad methods that if I had a nickel for every time it happened I could retire for life. Someone gets into an argument or disagreement that escalates on a forum. A person takes exception to the fact that a tweet they didn’t like got posted. People dislike a decision a company made and choose to unleash any manner of “feedback” that may or may not involve saying that the company’s employees should be fired and homeless or worse, put pictures up that depict some of the worst things they want happening to them. I know I’m bringing up examples here that are inflammatory situations, but this kind of thing can happen even in neutral settings, as we try to read and interpret someone’s online review, or read their blog or article, or look at their texts. Penny Arcade put up this comic way back in 2004, but it’s still relevant:

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The point is that whether unconsciously or consciously, we sometimes forget when we’re communicating online that we’re not the only human doing so – that our words to someone else are not going to some disembodied computer that types text back to us like in Wargames but to another actual person. That can be a problem, because we’re then removing one of the best things about being online with others and that’s getting to know them, exchange ideas with them, and, even if we disagree with them, to have learned something in the process. And because we forget, it’s a lot easier to not think of people but usernames vomiting words and thus make it a lot easier to vomit on them in response – without knowing a thing about how they were reacting, what kind of person they are, or in some cases, how that interaction will affect how they behave to others in kind. That’s a bit of dark territory when you talk about things like sustained online harassment, internet stalkery, or sociopathic smear campaigns, but it’s one people need to be conscious about when they’re communicating.

As someone who works with people online constantly, I know that there’s no easy solution and you can’t just make everyone not think of the other side of the screen as a set of humans rather than a bunch of letters and computers. There are always going to be trolls, malcontents, people who take advantage of the fact that they’re anonymous and can’t be immediately punched for saying punch-worthy things, and the like. But if the more reasonable people who have these unconscious episodes of dehumanizing others online by not thinking of them as humans are given pause by what I’ve said today, I’d consider that a victory. Thankfully, with more companies and organizations coming up with safe places or resources online, with the advent of things like livestreams and video blogs that put a more human face on what someone is saying, and with an increasing amount of people taking it upon themselves to be conscious of who they’re talking to and what they’re saying, there’s strides being made.┬áLet’s hope they continue to be, lest we become nothing more than disembodied keyboards and monitors shooting fire at one another and generally turning things into a chaotic mess:

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